A three-person review board has upheld Yukon Quest organizers' decision to ban longtime musher Hugh Neff from their 2019 races due to concerns about his dog care. The Yukon Quest announced the board's decision in a press release Tuesday.
The release came about two months after Yukon Quest organizers announced that Neff, a two-time Quest champion, could not compete in its 1,000-mile or 300-mile race next year after, they said, a necropsy showed just how sick his dog named Boppy was when it died in this year's race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
It's unusual for race officials to punish a musher for a dog death on the trail. But, officials have said, the medical examination on Boppy's body showed the dog suffered from some health problems that Neff could have prevented, including severe weight loss. The dog's muscles had started to waste away, they said.
Neff, a 50-year-old who lives in Tok, said earlier this year that he believed some in the race organization had a "personal vendetta" against him that fueled the penalties. He loves Boppy, he said, and felt like people were trying to force him out of the race. He appealed the Yukon Quest's decision to suspend him. In an interview Tuesday, he described the resulting hearing as "very one-sided."
"It was a kangaroo court, basically," he said. "I think, you know, in hindsight, they're more worried about protecting their race than being fair with me."
According to the Quest's press release, the confidential hearing took place in Fairbanks on June 14 and June 20 and was presided over by Karen Loeffler, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Alaska. Loeffler said she provided pro bono legal services at the request of the Quest.
A musher, a veterinarian and a community member sat on the review board. The Quest said it would not release their names.
"The purpose of the informal hearing was to provide Neff and the Yukon Quest with a full and fair opportunity to present their opposing evidence to a review board," said the Quest's press release. "After two days of confidential testimony, the review board concluded that Hugh Neff did not provide clear and convincing evidence to overturn the censure."
Boppy died in February at Clinton Creek, a cabin about 45 miles away from the Quest's halfway point in Dawson City. The cabin is not an official race checkpoint, so it's not staffed by race veterinarians.
Neff said Boppy was having seizures at Clinton Creek. He and others at the cabin spent hours trying to keep Boppy alive, he said, while also using a satellite phone to try to contact race veterinarians.
"I'm a dog musher," Neff said. "I'm not a veterinarian."
The race organization said in a statement Tuesday that if Neff would have pressed the emergency button on his tracking device at Clinton Creek "or officially requested on-site assistance of a veterinarian, the race would have sent one as soon as possible."
The Quest said Boppy ultimately died from aspiration pneumonia caused by inhaling vomit. The exam on Boppy's body showed that the dog had other health problems, too.
"The censure of Hugh Neff is based on Boppy's additional necropsy findings showing emaciation, whipworms, and stomach ulcers," the Quest said in a statement Tuesday. "The organization stands by the 2018 Yukon Quest veterinary team."
Neff said he would continue to have sled dogs and mush, though he didn't think he would compete again in the Quest, a race he said he has long loved.
"I love my dogs and I love Alaska and that's really what life is about," he said.
Since 2000, Neff has started 18 1,000-mile Yukon Quest races, finishing 14 of them and placing first twice, in 2016 and 2012. He has competed in 14 Iditarod races, placing 21st this year.
The Iditarod Trail Committee released a statement Tuesday evening in response to the Quest's censure of Neff. It did not directly say whether Neff could compete in the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Sign-ups for the race start Saturday.
The statement said a five-member board reviews the qualifications of each musher who signs up for the Iditarod. That board has the right to reject any entrant who doesn't demonstrate humane animal care practices and doesn't exemplify "the spirit and principles" of the Iditarod, it said.
Earlier this month, the Iditarod governing board revised its rule concerning dog deaths on the trail. Now, mushers who have a dog die during the Iditarod will be out of the race that year unless the death "was caused solely by unforeseeable, external forces."